GameFeelings: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
It feels a bit strange to have to say this and for it not to be simply a given, but I felt that Oblivion was a pile of garbage. In fact, I don’t feel too bad by saying that Oblivion was objectively a pile of garbage. At least when compared to Morrowind, which I love, and Daggerfall, which by now only exists in its own weird little bubble. So much of Oblivion felt like what would happen if someone let a heartless machine design a game. I wasn’t a fan. Fallout 3 was better, but did little to dissuade me from my opinion that Bethesda Game Studios could no longer craft a masterpiece, especially once Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas came along two years later and made Bethesda’s efforts look like a joke.
So I picked up Skyrim with trepidation, only to find that in the end I like it! I like it quite a bit! Not as much as Morrowind or New Vegas, no, and it’s not a perfect beast, but I’m 75 hours in (I just checked) and my experience is overwhelmingly positive.
Please note that I have been playing with a handful of user-made mods that have doubtlessly made a great deal of allowance towards said positivity.
First off, the world is no longer a milquetoast mashing together of fantasy clichés, as was the case with Oblivion. The Norse aesthetic seems to have given Bethesda a much clearer creative direction in all aspects of the game’s being, the extensive amounts of lore is constantly referred to (although I can only parse roughly 2% of it) without it coming off like a series of fan-service moments a la Oblivion, and the underlying ‘B-plot’ conflicts of in-province civil war and inter-province cold war prove interesting and utilized to great extent. Races all have a unique sense of culture and regions of Skyrim are varied, yet consistent within the overall scope and manage to avoid feeling like an amusement park of vaguely related attractions cordoned off from one another, as is a common problem with these types of open worlds.
Things fall apart a bit, as they always tend to do with Bethesda’s games, when one begins exploring the “main quest” (yes, they continue to insist on making the “real” story a wholly linear) and the clichés begin spilling out: dragons, an ancient order of bearded wizards, the player is the chosen one… I haven’t progressed very far in the main quest, mostly because I don’t feel like diving headfirst into what appears to be the least interesting content, but it’s already grating.
Bethesda’s decision to remove player stats and introduce a pure skill/perk system did not strike me as wise when I first heard about it, generally because the developer’s track record with concepts such as “change” has not always been a fruitful one. The result, however, works incredibly well. As far back as Morrowind, and perhaps sooner, the series has had massive problems with leveling: Depending on which classes and skills the player would be forced to make an uninformed choice upon within minutes of starting a new game, leveling would either slow to a crawl and cripple his or her abilities or shoot ahead rapidly and shatter the level scaling in about a dozen tiny pieces. Excising all of that was a sound choice, and the addition of Fallout-style perks makes things surprisingly more robust, with only a few problems.
The biggest problem is that the relationship between the perk system and the level-by-doing character growth system often clashes in terms of their individual goals. Chiefly, a few of the skills are simply useless, or are useless until a certain perk in their tree is unlocked. For example, the Smithing skill is reliant on constant crafting and gathering of resources for growth, meaning that unless one specifically grinds it out, it will remain fairly pointless unless its perk tree is fleshed out. Unfortunately, in pure catch-22 fashion the only worthwhile perks it carries require the skill to be at a high level, or are locked behind a line of perks that are not at all worthwhile but must have valuable Perk Points sunk into them—of which the player gets one per character level. Likewise, some perks appear to have little to do with their parent skill, such as the Extra Pockets perk that increases the character’s carrying capacity by one hundred points but requires extensive investment in the Pickpocket skill. I can see the connection in the names (they both contain the word “pocket” for the uninitiated) but not necessarily in the utility.
Another disappointment is the removal of legacy movement-based skills such as Athletics and Acrobatics. Reflecting a larger problem with the game, a large part of the fun to be had in previous Elder Scrolls titles has been the crazy lack of physical boundaries on one’s character. In Morrowind one could run at the speed of sound, jump over a mountain, walk on water, and fly. Oblivion chipped away at this freedom quite a bit by removing levitation, but Skyrim removes this customization altogether by making running speed, jumping height, and other such physical characteristics entirely standardized. Social interaction has been altered in a similar manner. In previous games, each NPC had a disposition score attached to him or her that signified how much they liked or disliked the player character, and that would affect the value of trade and attempts at persuasion. In Morrowind this score could be interacted with using the die-roll based Speechcraft skill, which wasn’t a perfect system. Oblivion replaced that with an awful mini-game, but retained the ability to influence NPCs on a granular level. Skyrim ditches the whole thing entirely, replacing persuasion with Fallout-style lines of dialogue that hinge on the player’s Speech skill. The result is that NPCs can only be interacted with through dialogue when a designer specifically allows them to be—a system that works for Fallout but lacks the emergence and dynamism one might have come to expect from an Elder Scrolls game.
Combat is more or less unchanged from Oblivion and it still requires the player to modify attacks by holding down a directional key, often creating an awkward ‘dance’ of death as the player hobbles back and forth, forward and back around the enemy. It’s functional but not great. The biggest change to the combat, Bethesda would declare, is the ability to dual wield. I don’t see too big of a difference. Users of two-handed weapons can obviously not participate, use of a shield in the offhand is a feature RPGs have been using since the Stone Age, and mixing magic with a sword feels new until one remembers that it is effectively the same as Oblivion’s magic casting hotkey. The only features that are new includes the ability to dual wield two weapons, which in my limited testing I didn’t find particularly effective and doesn’t even receive its own perk tree, and dual wielding two magical spells. Combining two of the same spell creates a more powerful version, which has its uses but it’s generally preferable to have a sword in hand. Two spells that are not of the same type cannot be combined or even cast simultaneously, making the dual wield only a minor fix towards the larger problem of having to dig through menus to swap out spells.
Speaking of the magic system, it’s probably the best The Elder Scrolls has come up with yet, but it still has its issues. Morrowind tied casting to a die roll, so unskilled mages would often fail to produce a spell—not exactly a preferable system. However, Oblivion made things far worse by removing the die roll but straight-up locking mages out of spells they were not leveled up enough to perform. Skyrim, on the other hand, wisely allows the player to cast any spell but ties the cost of magicka (mana, in Elder Scrolls speak) consumption to perks in the tree of each school of magic. The first perk on any school’s tree reduces the consumption of magicka on novice-level spells; the possible second reduces consumption on apprentice-level spells, and so on. The problem is that this is the only form of growth that the magic system sees. Unlike combat skills, there’s no granularity where a level 45 Destruction spell will be slightly more powerful or consume less magicka than a level 44 Destruction spell. Thanks to the perks system, all magical growth occurs in concentrated 25-level chunks which can be disheartening.
Furthermore, and perhaps the largest issue I’ve had with magic, is that new spells are learned only through the use of consumables called spell tomes. These are very rarely found as loot, and are primarily bought from shops—namely the ones in the College of Winterhold (Skyrim’s replacement for the traditional Mage’s Guild). However, the stock of items held by these vendors scales with the player’s skill level meaning that, for example, an expert-level spell, while it can be cast by anyone, simply cannot be found until that school of magic’s skill level is greater than approximately 75. This has lead me to simply give up on certain schools of magic altogether, since a potentially useful spell such as Invisibility would require me to grind out lower-level Illusion spells such as Calm and Frenzy that I simply have no use for.
Spells in the Destruction school are meant to have different effects. Fire-based magic will lower an enemy’s defenses, electricity will drain magicka, and ice will both slow enemies and drain their stamina. This works well enough, although I find it difficult to balance that with the immunities inherent to separate races. For example, Nords are generally purely fighters and are reliant on stamina to get the fullest out of their attacks, but are also partially immune to ice rendering that tactic pointless. On top of that, it can be difficult to tell certain races apart from one another at just a glance. Early on the game has pretensions towards copying a page from Bioshock’s handbook and having environment-based attacks. “Use lightning on enemies who are standing in water!” it will say. I never noticed a difference aside from a handful of locations with fire-baiting oil drenched across the floor.
Many spells from the older games, such as Open Lock, Water Walking, as well as Skill Draining, Fortification, and Absorption have been excised. The ability for the player to create their own spells has been removed. Likewise, magical crafting such as alchemy and enchantments can only be done at specific crafting tables in specific locations. These changes, again, are mostly concerned with limiting the player’s freedom of movement, mixture of approaches across different skills, and emergence in gameplay in favor of a more standardized, “game-like” system with greater defined rules. It makes for an altogether more coherent and stronger experience, but shamefully robs the player of experimentation and clever rule-bending planning that has long been an Elder Scrolls staple. The whole thing breaks less often, which is commendable, but the possibilities no longer feel endless—they feel like they end exactly where the designers put up the barbed wire.
Quests don’t particularly impress in terms of concept. Most tend to be limited to the player being sent to a dungeon to find Item X or kill Enemy Y. However, the dungeons are more engaging this time around, with more thoughtful placement of elements and nowhere near the level of repetition and recycling found in previous games. Here, each dungeon feels hand-crafted down to the smallest detail even though I doubt that is the case. More incidental locations are rich with interesting histories or in-progress stories than I certainly expected, and rarely do they beat the player over the head. Thankfully, the quest design isn’t quite as reliant on the game-ruining Quest Arrow as Oblivion and Fallout 3 were. While quest givers still refuse to give quasi-detailed directions as was the case in compass-less Morrowind, a handy new feature of the in-game journal is that highlighting a quest and pressing the map key will center the map onto the location of the player’s objective, giving a vague indication of its placement without resorting to pointing a big ugly arrow directly at it. Similarly, a magic spell exists named Clairvoyance which will draw an ethereal line towards the objective at the expense of magicka and limited effective range.
All in all, despite that fact that it appears to hate player autonomy, I enjoy Skyrim. Quite a lot! In an era where game studios are desperate to ignore their own products’ inadequacies, the fact that Bethesda took everything that was clearly broken about Oblivion and changed it at all is gives me a positive feeling inside of my chestholes. The fact that most if not all of those changes were for the benefit of the game instead of efforts to make the game worse is a godsend. Congratulations Bethesda, you have significantly improved.
But Morrowind and New Vegas are still way better.